Why worrying about technology really matters


Last Sunday the Star Tribune editorial board pondered the question “What should we really fear?” The editorial flowed from a question originally posed by John Brockman, editor of Edge.com. whom the writers describe as “the uber literary agent, cultural impresario and best friend to the world’s smartest people.” Though I was not on Brockman’s list of gurus the question (originally posed as ‘what should we worry about?’) has intrigued me all week.

Technology, the respondents concurred, is today’s bête noir. More specifically, “we should worry about the interplay between humans and technology.”

The Strib editors posed a spate of provocative questions that the response generated with them. Following their lead I’ve struggled with my personal answer, clearly based not on native intelligence but on a long life spent coping with and thinking about the implications of technology.

Two related questions raised by the editors’ concern are whether we have the “mental capacity to properly analyze the enormous flow of data that drives our decisions? “ and “Can we depend on the judgments of search engines? “ Of course we have the mental capacity to analyze, what we need is the mental capacity and the will to organize the stuff! Re: trusting the search engines – not till they’re ruled by librarians.

Next, the editors pose the question whether technology will stunt human curiosity. The technology remains blameless; it’s the delivery systems. Curiosity, like hope, springs eternal until it’s stunted by a system fashioned by bureaucratic – or diabolical – executives who crack the whips in countless institutional settings in which intellectual curiosity and creativity die aborning.

Does technology make us more parochial? Though we are undeniably more parochial it is not technology that we should censure – or censor. It is ownership, management of technology, regulation and understanding of the possibilities that determine its application. Afloat in an info tsunami spawned by technology we grab the nearest lifeboat where we hunker down with and reinforce each other with a turgid exchange of ignorance.

In answer to the question “Does technology render systems more vulnerable to all sorts of catastrophe?“ we have vast evidence to the positive. Forewarned is fore-armed.

The editorial writers next ask the question “Does technology devalue the written word?” The form of expression isn’t really at issue. Our challenge is to focus on content, not format. The well-wrought written word is the result of careful thought. We haven’t figured out yet how to pack that clear thinking into a tweet. What we do know is that it is digital technology that is opening the archival treasures of humankind to today’s learners. It is also technology that enables us to thoughtfully edit a document or execute the great American novel.

The questions raised by Brockman, expanded by the Strib editorial board, deserve far better that these glib retorts. Still, for me the taking time to worry about the potential and the perils of technology is the grand adventure of living in the 21st Century. We have the challenge and some of the tools to shape a world that is more just, wise, peaceful, healthy.

That’s why every society and every living person needs the power, the tools, the information age skills, the knowledge, the will , the motivation, and the freedom to engage. The issues are far too complex and compelling to be left to The Deciders .

This is not the time to worry about, much less fear, the technology – it’s time to tame the technology and to affirm and profess from the rooftops that today’s technology is created by human beings to enhance, not restrict, the species.